By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 61b) expounds on a story recorded in Shmuel and Divrei HaYamim.

Dovid HaMelech was fighting the Philistines. The Philistines were taking cover in a privately owned field, and Dovid HaMelech wanted to destroy the field and its produce. He was unsure whether he was permitted to do so. Was his army halachically permitted to destroy an individual’s property to save the lives of his men? He lamented the fact that due to his proximity to his enemies he was unable to seek guidance from the Sanhedrin. (This interpretation of the Gemara is preferred by the Raavad.)

Unbelievably, Dovid HaMelech expressed aloud a related question that was bothering him at the time: Suppose someone lights a fire on his own property and it spreads to his neighbor’s property, consuming the neighbor’s haystack. It is clear that the igniter is responsible for the damage caused to the haystack itself, but must he pay for items the owner hid in there as well? The owner may have hidden his tools in the haystack to prevent thievery while at the same time enabling easy access. According to Tosfos, this query was not in any way relevant to his dangerous predicament. But what else would Dovid HaMelech be doing in middle of a war besides having Torah discussions?

Upon hearing the king’s queries, three powerful warriors took upon themselves to risk their lives to go through enemy territory to reach the Sanhedrin to find answers for the unresolved questions. They returned unharmed with the rulings of the Sanhedrin. The Gemara records the answer to the first question. Unfortunately, the answer to second question has been lost to history, and the answer remains the subject of dispute until today.

Dovid HaMelech was not pleased with the actions of the three mighty men. He reasoned that they were not allowed to put themselves in danger for the sake of finding answers to the Torah questions. He therefore decreed that the men not be afforded the honor of having the answers repeated in their names. This, he explained, was based on a tradition he received from Shmuel HaNavi that scholars who needlessly put themselves in danger should not have their Torah rulings credited to them.

We find that great sages such as Rebbe Akiva endangered their lives to teach Torah. The Romans forbade, on penalty of death, the public dissemination of Torah. Rebbe Akiva defied that ban and was ultimately killed for ignoring the Roman decree. Yet Rebbe Akiva is lauded for his actions. So why were these three warriors derided for risking their lives for Torah?

The answer is that Rebbe Akiva risked his life in order to teach Torah publicly. Such selflessness is praiseworthy. Here, the three men risked their lives to discover answers to Torah questions. Dovid HaMelech and the other Jews continued studying Torah even without these answers. Hence, their goal was to help a few individuals discover a new aspect of Torah. One should not risk his life for the benefit of few individuals learning a new aspect of Torah.

Still, the Maharal points to a discrepancy between the above and a Gemara in Berachos (63b). “Reish Lakish stated: Torah only endures in one who kills himself for it.” Doesn’t that mean that one should be ready to sacrifice his life to be able to learn Torah? The Maharal explains that the Gemara in Berachos is figurative; a person should be willing to learn Torah even under dire conditions if need be.

The story is told of Rav Meir Shapiro, the founder of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, who was fundraising for his yeshiva. The yeshiva was based on an innovative idea at that time–that there should be a communal dining room and dormitory. Torah students shouldn’t have to search daily to find meals and lodgings. One donor was skeptical of this idea. He challenged Rav Shapiro: “The Gemara says that Torah only endures in one who kills himself for it. Part of ‘killing oneself’ should include finding lodging.”

Rav Shapiro retorted, “The Gemara says that one should kill himself for ‘it,’ meaning the Torah. He should expend all his energy and time focused on the study of Torah. He does not and should not have to spend his time ‘killing himself’ to find meals and lodgings!”

On another occasion, Rav Shapiro encountered another skeptical donor. The donor argued that it is stated in Avos 6:4, “This is the way of the Torah: Bread and salt you will eat, measured water you will drink, on the ground you will sleep, a life of suffering you will live, and in the Torah you will labor.”

“Yet,” the donor argued, “you want the boys to study Torah in comfort!”

Rav Meir Shapiro responded with a story that took place with the Baal HaTanya. The Baal HaTanya was traveling to meet the Vilna Gaon, and he stopped for Pesach in a Jewish community. The first night of Pesach, the congregation did not recite Hallel in shul. The Baal HaTanya waited until the congregants left the shul, and then he recited Hallel. The rav of the town somehow got wind of this and went straightaway to where the Baal HaTanya was having his Seder. The rav challenged him: “Why did you recite Hallel tonight in shul?” The Baal HaTanya responded, “The Beis Yosef clearly says that one should recite Hallel in shul on the first night of Pesach.”

Banging on the table, the rav retorted, “But the Rema says that is not our minhag!”

The Baal HaTanya asked the rav, “Did you hear the Rema say it?”

“No, but it is clearly in his sefer!”

“Then how do you know the Rema said it while banging emphatically on the table? Maybe the Rema was actually lamenting, ‘Too bad that nowadays we are not accustomed to saying Hallel!’”

“Similarly,” Rav Shapiro argued, “the Tanna is lamenting that it’s too bad that this is usually the way of those who learn Torah. They barely have what to live on, yet they persevere! Why not give those young men who toil in Torah optimal conditions? Hopefully, they would persevere regardless. But why make them suffer?” v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.

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